Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Leaves from the Tree of Life

Some how I got the reputation as THE poet of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois largely on the strength of being pushy and obnoxious about putting myself forward at every occasion possibleworship services, special readings, coffee houses, benefit events, vigils, and demonstrations.  If folks would stand or sit still long enough, I was sure to declaim original verse in their faces.  It helped that 14 years ago Skinner House Books, a publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association  (UUA) issued my little collection We Build Temples in the Heart from which a handful of poems have been regularly used in denominational services.  I also have the benefit of a platform on this blog which regularly reaches a few hundred readers and on social media.  After years of such efforts my visibility has risen to the second from the bottom rung of minor Midwest poets of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
But I am not the only poet in the Congregation nor, alas, even the best.
A few years ago our former minister, the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, himself a poet, convened a regular poetry group at church.  Several members and friends signed up.  They used writing exercises and cues, and shared each other’s work in a nurturing and supportive environment that encouraged each participant to fully explore their own voices and styles.  I was invited to join the group but as a non-driver I couldn’t make the sessions.  It turns out, I wasn’t missed.
When Rev. Sean left the church, the group continued to meet.  This January they were tapped to lead a poetry service.  When the worship plans were announced some folks thought I would be in it, probably front and center braying loudly and dramatically.  Nope, the women of the Poetry Group had it covered just fine thank you.  
The service was a roaring success.  The Congregation was moved and thrilled.  And I was deeply impressed.  I had heard some of them read their work at our former Haystacks Coffee House series, but others were a complete revelation to me.
The service was accompanied by a few stapled pages of the verses that were read.  Here is a sampling.  We will begin and end poems about poetry, but don’t let that scare you.

Living Things

Our poems
Are like the wart-hogs
In the zoo
It’s hard to say
Why there should be such creatures
But once our life gets into them
As sometimes happens
Our poems
Turn into living things
And there’s no arguing
With living things
They are
The way they are
Our poems
May be rough
Or delicate
Or great
But always
They have inside them
A confluence of cries
And secret languages
And always
They are improvident
And free
They keep
A kind of Sabbath
They play
On sooty fire escapes
And window ledges
They wander in and out
Of jails and gardens
They sparkle
In the deep mines
They sing
In breaking waves
And rock like wooden cradles.
Anne Porter
Gale Harris
Gale Harris is a social worker and a talented ceramic artitist as well as a long time promoter of the arts in Woodstock with her spouse Deb Glaubke.
Lessons from a Dog

My dog has been rolling in death.
Somewhere in the dark tangle
Of the underbrush has found remains
Of a creature broken down
To its essential self.
He is ecstatic, transcendent with joy.
He wants to share the gift,
The story of this little life
He's read through smell.
I pull a fact from something I have read:
Like a piece of kibble I might
Step on with bare feet—  
It tells me that dogs roll in death to hide
Their scent from predators and prey.
That fact, alone, does not explain his joy.
And, as I carry both of us, reeking
To the bath, I think of how we humans
Share the stories of our kind
And, at their funeral feasts, retell their lives,
Laugh, cry, ecstatic in the sharing.
When I die, I want someone to roll around
In my remains, carry my scent, my stories,
Rub them on everything they love—  
Like a little black dog
Rolling in death
Transcendent in joy.

—Gale Harris
Sue Rekenthaller reading at a Haystacks Coffee House Open Mic.
Sue Rekenthaller and her husband Gary Gauger are truck farmers who supply vegetables to local customers and sell at Farmers’ Markets.  She is also a veteran social justice activist with special interest in sentence and prison reform, immigration reform, and homelessness.  She is a hand-on activist who visits immigration detainees in McHenry County Jail and is a mainstay of the Compassion4Campers program for the homeless.
No More
It starts as a slow gnawing-gnawing.
Up from the belly straight to the heart.
The gleaming crystal of anger is growing-growing.
My saccharin shell soon will part.
Splitting down the middle falling-falling,
Glistening chain mail rising to the sky.
Pewter sword held high over head.
My voice a roar screaming low to high
I will take no more.
My gloved hand tears your heart from your chest.
I present it to you. No more.
Sue Rekenthaler
Jane Richards is working on a poetry collection and is also active in the Atrocious Poets which meets in Woodstock and is now sponsoring poetry readings at the Old Court House.

Desert Song
To Carlos Nakai

On your lips flute song takes flight
breath strokes the breeze
eagle dances in the wind
each inhale a dive of faith each exhale
a soaring prayer and on the updrafts,

Does your flute teach your fingers?
Can you taste the desert sand riding on each tone?
Does the sun’s heat hover inside your skin?
Will the silence beat inside you
till Spirit

—Jane Richards
April, 2017
Phyllis Cole-Dai
Phyllis Cole-Dai is an author, singer-songwriter, and poet who curated the mindfulness poetry blog A Year of Being Here. The group selected this poem to end the service.
On How To Pick and Eat Poems
Stop whatever it is you're doing
Come down from the attic
Grab a bucket or basket and head for light.
That’s where the best poems grow, and in the dappled dark.
Go slow. Watch out for thorns and bears.
When you find a good bush, bow
to it, or take off your shoes.
Pluck. This poem. That poem. Any poem.
It should slip off the stem easy, just little tickle.
No need to sniff first, judge the color, test the firmness—
you can only know it's ripe if you taste.
So put a poem upon your lips. Chew its pulp.
Let the juice spill over your tongue.
Let your reading of it teach you
what sort of creature you are
and the nature of the ground you walk upon.
Bring your whole life out loud to this one poem.
Eating one poem can save you, if you're hungry enough.
Take companions poem-picking when you can.
Visit wild and lovely and forgotten places, broken
and hidden and walled up spaces. Reach into brambles,
stain your sk
in, mash words against your teeth, for love.
And always leave some poems within easy reach for
the next picker, in kinship with the unknown.
If ever you carry away more poems than you need,
go home to your kitchen, and make good jam.
Don’t be I a rush, they’re sure to keep.
Some will even taste better with age,
a rich batch of preserves.
Store up jars and jars of jam. Plenty for friends.
Plenty for the long, howling winter. Plenty for strangers.
Plenty for all the bread in this broken world.

—Phyllis Cole-Dal


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Frank Bidart—Pulitzer Winner Not for the Weak Kneed

Frank Bidart.

If you turn to poetry for soul soothing comfort, this is not for you.  If you seek to be inspired and uplifted, this is not the guy.  If you are looking for cheap thrills and slasher porn, move along, there’s nothing to see here.  This year’s newly announced Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry, Frank Bidart specializes in long form verse that step inside damaged and tortured souls and sees a dark world unvarnished though those troubled eyes.  His subjects are real people—ripped from lurid headlines, clinical case studies, even historical characters.  And he can even turn that same remorseless attention on himself.
Bidart was honored this week for his life body of work amassed in Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016.  That is more than 50 years of award winning poetry including all his previous books, plus new work focused on his own life.
Bidart's Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award winning life collection.
Bidart was born in Bakersfield, California on May 27, 1939, and educated at the University of California at Riverside and at Harvard University, where he was a student and friend of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.  His first book, Golden State was published in 1973 examined his home state through the unromantic eyes of Bakersfield, not the sunny beaches, glitz and glam, or even ultra-hip counter culture often associated with it.
Ten years later he broke through to a wider audience with a major publisher, Random House, with The Sacrifice.  He followed up with original collections including Desire in 1997, Music Like Dirt in 2002, Stardust in 2005, Watching the Spring Festival: Poems in 2013.  All of these poems are in the new book in addition to a previously unpublished section, Thirst.
Bidart was celebrated in his home town of Bakersfield, California in 1997.
Bidart has collected numerous prizes and recognitions including the Wallace Stevens Award, the 2007 Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to his Pulitzer his new book also won the National Book Award, a rare two-fer of America’s top poetry honors.  He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2003. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he has taught at Wellesley College since 1972.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Gl├╝ck assessed Bidart and his work this way:

…Bidart explores individual guilt, the insoluble dilemma…Since the publication, in 1973, of Golden State, Frank Bidart has patiently amassed as profound and original a body of work as any now being written in this country.

Because he works in long form, it is impossible to sample the breadth of Bidart’s work here.  We will feature just one of his best known poems.

Actor James Franco, also a poet, made and directed this short film featuring Bidart's poem.
Herbert White
“When I hit her on the head, it was good,

and then I did it to her a couple of times,—
but it was funny,—afterwards,
it was as if somebody else did it...

Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.

Still, I liked to drive past the woods where she lay,
tell the old lady and the kids I had to take a piss,
hop out and do it to her...

The whole buggy of them waiting for me
                                                             made me feel good;
but still, just like I knew all along,
                                                   she didn’t move.

When the body got too discomposed,
I’d just jack off, letting it fall on her...

—It sounds crazy, but I tell you
sometimes it was beautiful—; I don’t know how
to say it, but for a minute, everything was possible—;
and then,
            well, like I said, she didn’t move: and I saw,
under me, a little girl was just lying there in the mud:

and I knew I couldn’t have done that,—
somebody else had to have done that,—
standing above her there,
                                       in those ordinary, shitty leaves...

—One time, I went to see Dad in a motel where he was
staying with a woman; but she was gone;
you could smell the wine in the air; and he started,
real embarrassing, to cry...
                                           He was still a little drunk,
and he asked me to forgive him for
all he hadn’t done—; but, What the shit?
Who would have wanted to stay with Mom? with bastards
not even his own kids?

                                  I got in the truck, and started to drive,
and saw a little girl—
who I picked up, hit on the head, and
screwed, and screwed, and screwed, and screwed, then

          in the garden of the motel...

—You see, ever since I was a kid I wanted
to feel things make sense: I remember

looking out the window of my room back home,—
and being almost suffocated by the asphalt;
and grass; and trees; and glass;
just there, just there, doing nothing!
not saying anything! filling me up—
but also being a wall; dead, and stopping me;
—how I wanted to see beneath it, cut

beneath it, and make it
somehow, come alive...

                                    The salt of the earth;
Mom once said, ‘Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth...’
—That night, at that Twenty-nine Palms Motel
I had passed a million times on the road, everything

fit together; was alright;
it seemed like
                     everything had to be there, like I had spent years
trying, and at last finally finished drawing this
                                                                           huge circle...

—But then, suddenly I knew
somebody else did it, some bastard
had hurt a little girl—; the motel
                                                      I could see again, it had been

itself all the time, a lousy
pile of bricks, plaster, that didn't seem to
have to be there,—but was, just by chance...

—Once, on the farm, when I was a kid,
I was screwing a goat; and the rope around his neck
when he tried to get away
pulled tight;—and just when I came,
he died...
                        I came back the next day; jacked off over his body;
but it didn’t do any good...

Mom once said:
‘Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth, and grows kids.’

I tried so hard to come; more pain than anything else;
but didn't do any good...

—About six months ago, I heard Dad remarried,
so I drove over to Connecticut to see him and see
if he was happy.
                        She was twenty-five years younger than him:
she had lots of little kids, and I don't know why,
I felt shaky...
                      I stopped in front of the address; and
snuck up to the window to look in...
                                                      —There he was, a kid
six months old on his lap, laughing
and bouncing the kid, happy in his old age
to play the papa after years of sleeping around,—
it twisted me up...
                            To think that what he wouldn’t give me,
                            he wanted to give them...

                   I could have killed the bastard...

—Naturally, I just got right back in the car,
and believe me, was determined, determined,
to head straight for home...

                                          but the more I drove,
I kept thinking about getting a girl,
and the more I thought I shouldn’t do it,
the more I had to—

                            I saw her coming out of the movies,
saw she was alone, and
kept circling the blocks as she walked along them,
saying, ‘You’re going to leave her alone.’
‘You're going to leave her alone.’

                                                   —The woods were scary!
As the seasons changed, and you saw more and more
of the skull show through, the nights became clearer,
and the buds,—erect, like nipples...

—But then, one night,
nothing worked...
                                    Nothing in the sky
would blur like I wanted it to;
and I couldn’t, couldn’t,
get it to seem to me
that somebody else did it...

I tried, and tried, but there was just me there,
and her, and the sharp trees
saying, ‘That’s you standing there.
                                                                  just you.’

                                 I hope I fry.

—Hell came when I saw
                                                      and couldn’t stand
what I see…’

Frank Bidart